News surrounding small music venues and clubs is often regarding closures and noise complaints, rather than new legislature to help keep these much loved spaces open. However, there has been a welcome change. As of the 6th of April 2016, property developers will require prior approval from local authorities when planning to turn offices into residential spaces that may be impacted by noise from nearby venues. Many venues have fallen victim to issues with noise complaints from residential areas springing up from office buildings, as it is estimated a third of London’s grassroots music venues have closed over the course of the last eight years. Although this new legislature does not free venues from the ongoing battle with noise related complaints, it is the first building block in ensuring these spaces can avoid unnecessary closure and continue to be a hotbed for much needed diverse musical culture. To help keep the positive vibes surrounding small venues and clubs flowing, Andrew Kemp takes a look at what makes these spaces such a necessary addition to any city’s music scene.
Dance music goes in stages; at some points during the acid-house peak periods of the late 80s and early 90s, rave culture often saw 'bigger equated with 'better', with mass migrations to warehouses or middle-of-nowhere fields creating a sense that parties were for the people amidst stormy political weather outside. Look a bit further along the timeline, however, and the intimacy of a small party has risen again as a force to be reckoned with, both in the UK and further afield. Perhaps consumer culture and corporate mass production has brought with it a sense of saturation-induced dissatisfaction with the cram-them-in bigger clubs, or a focus on commerce has dampened the spark from the mass congregation. Either way, many clubbers are now looking to take the underground philosophy back underground.
"At some points during the acid-house peak periods of the late 80s and early 90s, rave culture often saw 'bigger' equated with 'better."
That’s not to suggest that the era of the superclub is gone - a plethora of famous institutions in Berlin, London etc would prove that to be wrong - but increasingly apparent is the impressive impact that smaller venues are having in becoming go-to destinations in cities which are not exactly short of larger capacity arenas. Take Leeds for example, where the success of imposing venues like Canal Mills and Mint Warehouse has not inhibited the likes of Wire or HiFi from years of killer bookings and loyal fanbases. Look no further than long standing nights such as Butter Side Up, Back to Basics and the UK’s longest running weekly soul night, MoveOnUp, to see a demonstration of the staying power of the small venue party. The face of dance music is constantly changing, and so the significance of clubs that can sustain such longevity without ever needing to upgrade capacity or increasingly cram in the punters should not be understated.
Across the Pennines, Manchester’s Soup Kitchen tells a similar story. Providing a space for Manchester’s best-loved residents, the 200 capacity downstairs room is recognised as having one of the best atmospheres in town, competing for bookings with even the giants of The Warehouse Project despite operating at completely different scales. Even when dwarfed by the visibility of larger clubs with money to burn on advertising, regular Soup Kitchen nights such as Swing Ting and _meandyou have become permanent fixtures in the calendars of Fallowfield residents and professionals (young and not so young) alike, with crowds gathering almost instinctively as world-class DJs take to the decks for extended sets.
It’s a trend that can be witnessed across the world. The recent closure of miniscule Hamburg haven Golden Pudel was met with a barrage of heartfelt eulogies from the likes of Ben UFO, DJ Koze and other in-the-knows, signalling the huge respect that such special small venues command. The graffitied hut and its friendly mismatch of eccentric guests was revered by listeners and performers in equal measure, paying little heed to profit and focussing instead on acting as a mixing bowl for an unnervingly diverse array of musical ingredients. Often forgoing the kind of fees that they’d expect of more ordinary locations, big names would play at Golden Pudel for the love not money, entertaining a crowd of no more than 200 as, weather permitting, many more join the party in the streets outside. Replace “Golden Pudel” with “Plastic People”, and “Hamburg” with “London”, and the story still rings near enough true.
"The face of dance music is constantly changing, and so the significance of clubs that can sustain such longevity without ever needing to upgrade capacity or increasingly cram in the punters should not be understated."
The reverence given to Frankfurt’s Robert Johnson, a techno mecca of similar weighting to its much larger Berlin cousins, perhaps indicates another factor - namely, that the right sound system in a small venue is almost impossible to improve upon. Featuring only a simple setup with a Martin Audio sound system, turntables and a rotary mixer, suggestions that Robert Johnson is amongst the elite levels in European sound are not unpopular. Minimal and music-focussed, the venue has earned owners Ata and Sebastian Kahrs a very important place in German techno folklore, and is another great example of the devotion that smaller clubs are able to achieve.
Returning to the UK, and parties like Night Moves and Cosmic Slop are definitive proof that the best parties are often the most modest. Both reliant almost exclusively on word of mouth for advertising, when in progress the two gatherings are usually the best thing on in London and Leeds respectively regardless of what’s going on elsewhere. The former, run by Jane Fitz and Jade Seatle, has moved between different London locations, bringing with it a crowd of past pals and friends to be over the last few years. Cosmic Slop started as a one-off fundraiser for pride of Leeds charity MAP, and founder Tom Smith continues to devote all profits to the charity with the now monthly parties, having seen his custom-built disco sound system hailed as the "the greatest soundsysytem in the world" by semi-regular guest Floating Points. Even before considering the impeccable sound quality, the 200 capacity parties never stray from perfectly friendly atmospheres, selling out every time without ever finding themselves plastered over flyers.
Look at Bristol, Glasgow, Liverpool or Sheffield and you’ll find similar examples of small clubs holding their own territory as much-loved music venues. Bristol’s pub culture has seen the likes of The Love Inn host Jackmaster, Craig Richards and Joy Orbison despite its unassuming stature, whilst underground bar Cosies offers some of the most popular nights in a city which boasts the expansive Motion as one of a few sizeable establishments. Glasgow’s Sub Club is approaching its 30th year in business, and is renowned as one of the UK’s best dance locations despite a comparatively early closing time, offering further proof that the size of the party doesn’t necessarily matter if the content is on point.
"Across the world small nightclubs are proving resilient in the face of much more powerful neighbours, comfortably holding their positions as some of the best names in the game."
Like the diminutive Leicester City team shrugging off the challenges of City, Arsenal or United to stand proud at the top of the Premier League, across the world small nightclubs are proving resilient in the face of much more powerful neighbours, comfortably holding their positions as some of the best names in the game. A good party will bring a crowd together like a well-knit team, and it seems that there is no replacement for the chemistry built in an intimate location like those revered by DJs who could have their pick of any club in the world. Glitzy clubs with shiny ceilings and well-stocked bars will always have their place in clubbing culture, and there will always be times when the stripped walls of a cavernous warehouse will provide a harmonious enclosure for a big system and a bigger crowd, but the pulling power of a community and music orientated smaller club akin to those named above is undeniable. Dance music will continue to evolve, but when it comes to parties one thing looks set to stay the same; bigger isn’t always better.
(Photo courtesy of The Nest, London)
Words by Andrew Kemp
Main photo courtesy of Wire